Deep Purple

By James Jorden

Few operatic experiences—indeed few human experiences—exist or, nonexistent, emerge from the imagination, that cannot be described with a quotation from that most definitive of all diva novels, Mawrdew Czgowchwz by James McCourt. And so it is with the career (or should one say the life?) of the Regie fancier.

Speaking of the “grand moments” that illumine the life of the 1950s standee, McCourt writes, “One saw truth, heard it in key perhaps three times in one perfect week, then perhaps (like as not) not again for the entire season.”

It’s been a while since truth completed the hat trick of appearing three times in any sort of week here in New York, but last week I did see something very true indeed: the New York Theatre Workshop production of The Little Foxes.

From the reviews I read and from accounts of previous productions by this show’s director, Ivo van Hove, I think I was expecting something terribly outré and even “disrespectful” to the classic Lillian Helman melodrama. It’s not that at all, and yet it defies the naturalistic style. Deliberately abandoning the play’s epoch of circa 1900, the actors make no attempt at syrupy southern accents, and much of the physical action is utterly discordant with normal expectations about the behavior of post-Victorian small town American gentry.

The set by Jan Versweyveld is the merest abstraction of a drawing room: a sharp-sided box with walls and floor covered in carpet of the deepest midnight purple, in so shallow a pile as to look almost like wallpaper. The concrete ceiling, high by architectural standards, seems to press the space into an oppressively shallow rectangle. An internal wall suggesting a hearth opens into a square portal containing a narrow staircase to nowhere; above the gap is an ornately framed HD screen projecting what looks to be surveillance footage of offstage characters, almost always frozen in waiting postures. The room is bare of furniture until the middle of the second act, when a single brocade armchair seems to clutter the space.

Costumes are starkly modern, almost all in black, as if for a staged reading. Giddy Aunt Birdie (Tina Benko) is always in red, including a half-naked scarlet kimono and spiked mules in which (we learn) she ran across the town square to greet her returning brother-in-law. The dying, virtuous husband Horace (Christopher Evan Welch) returns from the hospital in a rumpled suit but is soon stripped down to an untucked shirt, slacks and bare feet. In this unforgivingly public space, he looks vulnerable enough to bruise with a glance.

By shunning all artifice, by ignoring or substituting surface detail, the production somehow focuses the attention unrelentingly on the text—and this despite the fact that the actors, doubtless with van Hove’s encouragement, speak their speeches in a manner antithetical to well-made theatrical style: they mumble, they whisper, they (especially the Regina, the astonishing Elizabeth Marvel) shriek, they all talk at once, or, for long stretches, they simply remain silent, leaving us hanging on the next word.

Now, I’ve acted in this play before, for a run of about six weeks, and I’ve witnessed Elizabeth Taylor and maybe a half-dozen lesser names play it onstage, and of course I’ve watched the Bette Davis movie more times than I can count. I’ve even caught a few performances of the rather cheesy Marc Blitzstein musical/opera adaptation Regina. But now, at this late date, I realize I never actually saw The Little Foxes, comprehended it, until Ivo van Hove showed it to me.

“Wow,” said I, who never reads program notes, “Wouldn’t it be great if someone could talk this van Hove into directing opera?”

In fact, he does direct opera: Der Ring des Nibelungen, to begin with (yes, I do feel dumb!) and what looks like a very striking (and, I’m willing to bet) a very true production of Vec Makropulos.

So, here’s my question: Ivo van Hove directs opera, and he directs in New York, home of two of the world’s great opera companies. So why isn’t a (if not the) Ivo van Hove directing at the Met or the New York City Opera?

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